A section of protected mangrove forest in Koh Kong that in December was discovered to have been filled with sand was illegally sold to tycoon Chea Leanghong in 2017, documents show, with local authorities having signed off on the deal.
In March 2017, Sok Kimhong and his wife, Siv Chou, sold the 13 hectares of land inside Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary to Leanghong, according to a copy of the sale contract obtained by The Post. Leanghong is the chairman of the development and real estate company KH Niron Investment.
The sale was approved by former Stung Veng Village Chief Chhung Thavon and former Stung Veng Commune Chief Khung Vichhean, the document shows.
Koh Kong provincial officials earlier this week said a committee was investigating the illegal filling-in of the flooded mangrove forest, but claimed they still did not know who was behind the crime. Authorities first inspected the location in December, where they also found an illegal sand-dredging operation filling in the area.
Koh Kong Deputy Governor Sok Sothy, who earlier this week dismissed allegations that Leanghong was behind the scheme as just “rumours”, yesterday declined to comment.
Thavon, the former village chief, acknowledged that he signed off on the sale contract between Kimhong, Chou and Leanghong, but claimed he was unaware it was a protected area, and contended it had previously been sold.
“I did not know that it involved a [protected] community area,” he said. “If I knew, I would not dare to [sign] it.”
The two filled-in hectares are part of a more than 1,000-hectare “community zone” inside the sanctuary, where families can still live and cultivate the land. The community area was established inside the sanctuary by a 2009 sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Leanghong’s wife, Louk Sovanna, initially denied yesterday that she and her husband had bought the land.
She claimed that a few years ago a man had approached them to see if they wanted to purchase it but that “everything was under the table”, and they decided not to do so.
“For now, I can say my husband and me didn’t buy any land that is illegal, and if you have the proof, please tell us,” she said.
The Post wasn’t immediately able to supply the contract bearing her husband’s name and thumbprint, but did describe the contents in detail to her. Asked if she still denied her husband’s involvement in the sale, she replied: “I’m not denying anything because I didn’t see the document yet.”
In June 2016, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive to annul titles to 300 hectares of filled-in mangrove forest across four provinces. He then chided authorities for a lack of progress in enforcing the order last August, saying: “It ends here.”
“Although there was a directive and a direct order from Hun Sen, the implementation from local authorities is not effective as there are still land grabs in the coastal areas, such as the flooded mangrove forest,” said Sok Sokhom, director of the Cambodia National Research Organization.
“Provincial authorities pay attention to implement the order, but it is not effective because the individual clearing the coastal land is backed by powerful people.”
Nheab Sam Oeun, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said only a buyer with powerful interests behind them would be able to get land inside the protected community area.
“The selling and buying of the land is completely violating the law because it is a state-owned land,” he said.
Seng Sokheng, with the Community Peace Building Network, said the illegal pumping of the mangroves with sand had gone “without intervention from authorities”.
“Until now, [we] didn’t see the Koh Kong Provincial Environment Department or [the Ministry of Environment] take action,” he said.
“We think that this is the government’s failing to manage natural resources and shows corruption and impunity, especially the weakness of law enforcement.”
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of NGO Mother Nature, said while the government may want to protect what is left of the country’s natural heritage, they’re unable to do so because of a “tiny mafia-like elite made up of government officials and businessmen”.
Government officials who want to protect the natural resources, are “simply too scared of doing anything that might economically affect those in power”.
Updated: 11:58am Thursday 22 February 2018